I’m working on a longer post about this whole “sexual harassment at atheist/ skeptical conferences” thing. I may not be able to get it out for a couple/few days, as I’m more than usually swamped right now. But there’s a particular point that I haven’t yet seen addressed, and I want to address it quickly here.
A quick summary, for those who haven’t been following: At the Women in Secularism conference last month, blogger and panelist Jen McCreight said that there was a problem with sexual harassment at atheist and skeptical conferences — and that in particular, there was a problem with certain speakers harassing female attendees or other speakers. She sums it up here on her blog.
There’s been a lot of conversation about this — and much of it has focused on the fact that, for the most part, the issue is being discussed without specific names being publicly named, and the discussion of who exactly we’re talking about is mostly happening behind the scenes. It’s been explained — more than once, actually — why this is. But detractors have been calling this “gossip” at best, a “witch-hunt” from the “Galiban” at worst.
So there’s a point I want to make.
Are second-hand reports of harassment enough to put someone in jail? Of course not.
Are they enough to officially ban someone from speaking at a conference? All by themselves, probably not.
But are they enough to start a conversation about sexual harassment at conferences? Are they enough to get us thinking about how we can make people feel safer coming forward when they’re harassed? Are they enough to make us wake up and realize that there’s a real problem here?
They bloody well should be.
If a whole lot of women, independently of one another, are coming up to Jen McCreight or anyone else and privately saying, “(X) groped me,” or “(X) kept hitting on me over and over even when I made it clear I wasn’t interested,” or “(X) followed me up to my hotel room after dinner without any invitation from me”… this should be a clear indication that we have a problem.
And if a whole lot of women are saying these kinds of things about several different men — with some reports being told about the same men over and over, and others being told about lots of separate incidents with lots of different men… this should be a clear indication that we have a BIG problem.
And it should be a powerful motivation to take action.
Yes, we have a Catch-22 about reporting. Currently, women who get harassed often don’t feel safe reporting it publicly. Understandably. When they do report it publicly, the consequences can be pretty ugly… especially if the person they’re reporting is famous and well-liked. And most of the time, it’s difficult at best, impossible at worst, to get hard evidence of harassment: it typically happens away from witnesses, and it rarely leaves physical evidence, so it typically comes down to “he said, she said.” And that creates two very bad situations: perpetrators can harass without consequences, and innocent people can be falsely accused with no defense. The people who are speaking out against sexual harassment at conferences are aware of this. We get that it’s a real problem.
AND THAT’S THE EXACT REASON WE’RE TALKING ABOUT IT.
We’re trying to find solutions.
Since this conversation started, nine different conferences that I’m aware of have either put a harassment policy with reporting procedures in place, pledged to put a harassment policy with reporting procedures in place, or stated that they already have a harassment policy with reporting procedures in place and have pledged to make it more public. That is a HUGE practical step forward. These are practical steps that can address this Catch-22. And they are steps that have been taken because people started talking about this.
There has, for instance, been a great deal of discussion about incidents of sexual harassment at TAM. JREF President and TAM organizer D.J. Grothe has been saying that he had no idea these incidents had happened. I’m willing to believe this. And this is the exact reason that a conference needs to not only have an anti-harassment policy, but needs to have reporting procedures in place. Having official channels to anonymously report these incidents gives you an idea of what problems your conference might be having that you don’t know about — and gives you ideas of how you might fix them.
So yes. The fact that women who get sexually harassed at conferences — especially by famous speakers — often don’t feel safe speaking out about it and naming names in public… yes, that’s a problem. Some of us are trying to solve this problem. If you have ideas about solving this problem that we’re missing, we would love to hear about it.
But if you’re going to accuse us of spreading gossip or starting a witch-hunt because we’re talking, as clearly as we can, as publicly as we can, about what is obviously a very real problem in this community, and are trying to find practical and fair solutions?
I’m trying to find a civil way to say this.
Your concerns are noted. Thank you for sharing.